Monday, May 23, 2011

Osama bin Laden, Pornography, and the American Way

Simon Stow
The College of William and Mary

Among the apparent treasure trove of materials recovered from Osama bin Laden's safe house in Pakistan were, we are told, bottles of Coca Cola, a holistic version of Viagra, and a stash of pornography. Given the conflicting reports from the White House about the details of the raid that killed bin Laden, we should perhaps regard the latest revelations with a certain amount of skepticism. First we were told that Navy Seals had engaged in a fierce firefight; then, that shots had been exchanged only once. Second, that bin Laden had shielded himself behind his wife; and then, that he had not. Third, that bin Laden had been armed at the time of his death; and then, that he had not. In each case, the initial accounts were meant to help justify the decision to kill rather than capture bin Laden while simultaneously seeking undermine the credibility of al Qaeda's leader.

The recent announcement about bin Laden's love of adult entertainment is, of course, meant to do the same: exposing the disparity between his high ideals and his base desires. The paradox is that the hypocrisy meant to discredit to bin Laden is the hypocrisy of the United States. Pornography is the largest and most profitable sector of the U.S. Entertainment industry with revenues far outstripping those of the NFL, NBA, and Major League Baseball combined. That bin Laden liked to drink Coca Cola and engage in a single-handed jihad on his sexual appetites places him firmly within an American tradition of self-pleasuring consumerism. It is an uncomfortable thought, made all the more uncomfortable, perhaps, by the recognition that this might not be all that America shares with bin Laden.

In The Commission: the Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation (Grand Central Publishing, 2008) by New York Times reporter Philip Shenon, the former head of the CIA's bin Laden unit, Michael Scheuer is quoted as paralleling bin Laden's fatwa against the United States with the American Declaration of Independence. Comparing bin Laden to Jefferson, Scheuer observes that bin Laden's was a "frighteningly reasoned argument," absent the usual Islamic extremist rhetoric about "women in the work place or X-rated movies." The disputes, Scheuer notes, were political not cultural. Connecting bin Laden to pornography is yet another way of avoiding any considered engagement with the validity or otherwise of his political claims. Nevertheless, bin Laden's apparent love of pornography is, perhaps, no more or less discrediting to his arguments than were Jefferson's extra-marital, and possibly extra-consensual, relations with Sally Hemmings.

Part of the problem here is that pornography itself generates obsession, one reflected in both bin Laden's stash, and in the coverage of it by the U.S. media. Hence the glee that led The New York Post to lead with the headline "Osama Porn Bin Wankin’!"? More than this, perhaps, this ecstasy may be a product of an even deeper connection between bin Laden and America: that he has in some ways been shown to be just like us. The stories of bin Laden's self-denial and rugged individualism -- holed up in a cave and eluding capture like a latter-day Jesse James or Pretty-Boy Floyd -- might have reminded us of something that we had lost. That we had, perhaps, become a little flaccid. The knowledge that bin Laden spent the years we had feared him watching porn and making plans he would never accomplish may make him seem much more relatable, and thus less frightening, to many Americans. (Given the absence of the internet in bin Laden's hideout, I am actually quite curious about the person whose job it was to supply bin Laden with pornography and how exactly the request for such materials was conveyed. Did bin Laden specify his requirements at the outset? Did the courier provide him with a sampler pack and ask his leader to choose his favorites? Or was the courier trolling the Internet one night and struck by the thought "Oh, the Sheik will love this"?). It may be, however, as I have argued elsewhere, that pornography has been part of America's framing of the 9/11 attacks from the get-go. This, I have suggested, is demonstrated, most obviously, by the New York Times’ series Portraits in Grief, in which the Times produced obituaries for almost all of those killed in New York by the 2001 terrorist attacks. There, the fundamental repetitiveness of the stories, and desire to produce bodily fluids (in this case, tears), mirrored pornography’s obsession with the same.

Indeed, this mirroring of pornography has been extended by the broadcast networks’ agreement no longer to show the 9/11 footage, except under limited circumstances. For, as Walter Kendrick, points out in his seminal work, The Secret Museum: Pornography in Modern Culture (University of California Press, 1997), the word pornography was coined in the nineteenth century following the discovery of a multitude of erotic artifacts during the excavations at Pompeii. Fearing that the masses might be shocked by the frank depictions of carnality and the popularity of the phallus as a civic decoration in ancient world, the archaeologists who discovered the materials placed them in a secret museum accessible only to those with sufficient academic credentials to observe and study them. The very act of hiding the materials nevertheless made them more desirable. Pornography became a taboo and a cultural obsession.
Currently, the Obama administration is vacillating over whether or not to show the pictures of bin Laden’s body. Many in the administration and a number of our elected politicians have seen the photographs, but they are considered too shocking for mass consumption. In this, they are now our most erotic national artifact. Larry Flynt for president?



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